PR Watch: AZ Senator Recalled Over ALEC Immigration Bill

By Ben Tobias, PR Watch

Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce lost his seat in a recall election November 8th. The vote was widely seen as a referendum on Senate Bill 1070, the volatile anti-immigration legislation introduced by Pearce, a longtime member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The unofficial vote shows Pearce trailing his main challenger by 7 percentage points, 45 percent to 52 percent. The apparent victor, newcomer Jerry Lewis, is a conservative Republican like Pearce but campaigned against Pearce's anti-immigration law.

Pearce's SB1070 was modeled after the ALEC "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act," which requires state law enforcement enforce federal immigration law, gives private citizens the right to sue law enforcement officers if they do not think the law is being enforced (regardless of other law enforcement priorities such as investigating violent crimes), makes presence on state soil without federal immigration status a criminal offense, and requires that employers use the flawed "e-Verify" system for hiring employees. The bill was approved by an ALEC task force that included the Corrections Corporation of America and
the American Bail Coalition, both of which stand to benefit from an increase in immigrant detention and imprisonment. (CCA claims it did not "vote" on the bill in the task force it has been a member of for years and previously co-chaired; it claims it merely observed task force meetings. CCA was listed as a member of that ALEC Task Force, with its representative featured on the ALEC task force discussion, until late last year.)

The legislation passed in 2010, but its most offensive provisions have been thrown out by a federal court. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Referendum on Immigration Legislation

The recall election largely revolved around SB1070, because on most other issues, Pearce and Lewis agreed. Lewis compared Arizona to Alabama in 1964 in a recent debate, noting the boycotts inspired by the anti-immigration law have harmed Arizona's business climate. Lewis said Arizona needs a leader who can address issues facing the state without "fear-mongering and political rhetoric" and expressed interest in working with the federal government on a comprehensive immigration solution.

Lewis' victory was seen as sending a message to GOP leadership that anti-immigrant rhetoric is not a winning issue. Republican lobbyist and political analyst Christ Herstam told the Associated Press, "the [Arizona] Legislature remains extremely conservative but with regards to making illegal immigration their top priority, this should be a warning shot across the bow."
Spoiler Candidate Tactic Backfires

It also appeared the Pearce campaign tried to rig the election in his favor by running a "spoiler" candidate, political neophyte Olivia Cortes, in an attempt to siphon Hispanic votes from Lewis. Cortes pulled out of the race in October after court proceedings revealed that Pearce's Tea Party supporters (and perhaps Pearce's nieces) helped gather signatures to put her on the ballot. The controversy likely worked in Lewis' favor. Despite stepping down from the race, robocalls in the week leading up to the election encouraged voters to cast ballots for Cortes, and she actually pulled 1.3% of the votes.

This spoiler tactic was also used in Wisconsin State Senate recalls last summer. GOP Senators recruited supporters to run as Democrats, forcing a primary and giving Senators facing recall an additional four weeks to raise money and more time for outside interest groups to bombard districts with mailings and advertisements.
Clean Government also at Issue

Immigrant rights groups led the recall effort, gathering 17,000 signatures to put Pearce's name on the ballot. But there were other significant issues in the campaign, including allegations that Pearce was too cozy with donors and lobbyists. Lewis ran on a no-gifts pledge, criticizing Pearce for receiving nearly $40,000 in free trips, hotels, and game tickets from college football's Fiesta Bowl organizers. Pearce also has received a decade's worth of contributions from the private prison industry.

Pearce used these special interest connections to outraise his opponent by a 3:1 margin, most of it from outside his district. The now-former Senator painted the recall against him as the work of outsiders, but ninety percent of Lewis' fundraising came from Arizonans. Contributions to Pearce from inside Arizona included the legal maximum from two lobbyists for consulting firms that represent the GEO group private prison corporation, as well as money from a lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America.

Additionally, most of the independent expenditures went to benefit Pearce, with the D.C.-based American Federation for Children spending the most out of all the independent groups. AFC is a longtime ALEC member that supports school privatization and is chaired by right-wing funder Betsy DeVos.

The flood of money in Pearce's favor, though, was not enough to overcome grassroots organizing against him. For some of his constituents, Pearce's connection to special interests was a motivating force in the recall.

Linda Brown, Director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, told CMD that "the campaign had everything to do with a corrupt politician, ALEC's darling, acting with contempt for his constituents in favor of his monied masters." Brown said "the voters of Legislative District 18 are very religious and very conservative," but that "once they heard that [Pearce] had taken one third of the Fiesta Bowl pay-to-play money, turned his back on education and children, and enjoyed comfy skyboxes at bowl games, they'd heard enough."

The original article can be viewed here.